Great Britain

Britannia major or Great Britain was originally purely a geographical expression for the British mainland, named thus either because it was simply the largest of the many islands that made up the British Isles or in order to distinguish it from Britannia minor, Lesser Britain or Brittany and possibly, by happy coincidence, both.

The island of Great Britain comprises the separate nations of England, Wales and Scotland and the term is often used as if it was synonymous with the state officially known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but commonly known as the 'United Kingdom', whereas technically speaking Northern Ireland (and previous to that Ireland) are not part of Great Britain. Neither does Great Britain include the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands which are crown dependencies. (The later is, of course, not even part of the British Isles being geographically part of Normandy.)

As a geo-political entity Great Britain is a comparatively modern invention (if only because the terms Britain and British were long regarded as being synonymous with Wales and Welsh), although the idea of uniting the whole island under one rule was of long standing; Athelstan claimed to be 'Emperor of Britain' in the tenth century, the Norman kings of England regarded themselves as being the superior overlords of the whole island and Edward I clearly pursued an imperial vision of a united island in his campaigns in both Wales and Scotland in the thirteenth century. But it was not until the sixteenth century that the idea of a Great Britain emerged in earnest.

Tudor Great Britain

The term Great Britain was first used as a political expression in 1547 during what is known as the Rough Wooing when Henry VIII of England sought to marry his son, the soon to be Edward VI to the infant Mary, Queen of Scots with the intention of united the two kingdoms under one crown. This policy was continued following Henry's death by Edward Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector. In order to persuade the Scots to acquiesce in this grand scheme, Somerset sponsored propaganda based on ancient Welsh tradition, in particular the prophecies of Merlin, which told of a time when Britain had been united as a single realm, and would be again, and claimed that `this realme now called Englande the onely supreme seat of the empire of greate Briteigne' and that Great Britain was `no new name but the old to them both'.

The Scots were not impressed by this idea, and with the assistance of France were eventually able to resist the Rough Wooing and marry the young Mary off to the king of France, whilst one Robert Wedderburn wrote The Complaynt of Scotland as a counterblast to the British propaganda of the English Tudor regime stating that it was 'unpossible that Scottis men and Inglis men can remain in concord under ane monarchy or ane prince, because ther naturis and conditiouns are as indefferent as is the nature of scheip and wolvis'.

Stuart Great Britain

It is therefore somewhat ironic that it was a Scot who was to bring the idea of Great Britain somewhat closer to realisation, as it was James VI of Scotland who succeeded the last of the Tudors, Elizabeth I to become king James I of England in 1603. From the beginning James made it clear that he desired to be the king of a single kingdom and that the kingdom should be named Great Britain. As he later proclaimed, I desire a perfect union of laws and persons, and such a naturalising as may make one body of both kingdoms under me your king.

In furtherance of this objective a Joint Commission was established in June 1604 to produce concrete proposals, but by the time it had reported in 1606 sentiment in both Scotland and England had moved decidedly against the idea. The actual Instrument of Union made no mention of a Great Britain and limited itself to proposing specific measures such as establishing free trade and an Anglo-Scottish extradition treaty, but was still too much for the English Parliament who rejected it.

English opinion was against the idea of Great Britain largely because they both disliked the idea of being 'British' rather than 'English' and because they regarded Scotland and the Scots as vulgar barbarians who were seeking to plunder English wealth, whilst the Scots were equally against the idea because they believed that the English would seek to dominate any such alliance.

Therefore James' vision of a kingdom of Great Britain came to nothing at the time, but king James had taken the opportunity to make a number of important symbolic gestures in support of his grand scheme. Specifically;

  • on the 20th October 1604 James proclaimed himself as 'King of Great Britain, France and Ireland', a title that he and occasionally his successors continued to use;
  • on the 16th November 1604 he decreed as common currency a 20 shilling piece called a Unite, which continued to appear sporadically throughout James' reign and that of his successor Stuart monarchs;
  • whilst on the 12th April 1606 James issued another royal decree ordering all ships to fly a common flag which was officially named as the 'Great Union' but which has been known ever since as the Union Jack. (Allegedly named after James himself, due to his habit of signing his name in French as Jaques.)

Thus Great Britain had a king, a currency and a flag even though legally speaking, there was no Great Britain.

Hanoverian Great Britain

Despite these symbolic gestures the Stuart vision of Great Britain remained as unfulfilled as that of the Tudors and another century was to pass before this vision became a reality.

The catalyst for the birth of Great Britain was the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when the largely Protestant nobility and gentry dethroned the Catholic James II and transferred the crown firstly to his Protestant daughter Mary (and her husband William of Orange) and then to his equally Protestant daughter Anne. The problem was that neither of James' two daughters Mary and Anne were successful in producing any offspring, which left the succession very much in doubt. The Act of Succession 1701 passed by the English Parliament solved this problem by providing that the crown should go to George the Elector of Hanover, who was selected for the role on the basis of his religion.

The Scots were less than happy with the notion that the English believed that they alone could make decisions regarding the succession to both kingdoms and the Scottish Parliament passed the Act of Security 1703 which firmly asserted the right of Scotland to decide for itself in this regard. Thus the English became worried that the Scottish Parliament might, when the time came, insist on offering the Scottish crown to somebody other than the Elector of Hanover, giving rise to the unhappy prospect of an independent Scotland pursuing its own policy, and even renewing its Auld Alliance with England's old enemy the French.

The solution to this problem was simply to unite both kingdoms into one, thereby removing the ability of Scots to choose a different monarch. Although Scottish opinion was almost unanimous in rejecting the idea (particularly on the basis of the terms outlined) the English government were able to secure the necessary legislation by buying the support of a sufficient number of Scottish politicians and peers with hard cash, prestigious appointments or the promise of new and grander peerage title.

On the 1st May 1703 the United Kingdom of Great Britain came into being, the kingdoms of England and Scotland ceased to exist, and there were to be no more kings of England and Scotland but rather kings of Great Britain. Or queen to be specific, as the first monarch of Great Britain was queen Anne. (Not that this has stopped people from continuing to refer to Elizabeth II as the 'Queen of England' despite the fact that neither England nor the title have existed for two centuries.)

However James' idea of one kingdom united under 'One King', 'One Flock' and 'One Law' was never quite realised as each of the former kingdoms retained their own church, educational and legal systems. The terms of the union of 1703 were limited to union at a political and economic level ans thus the kingdom of Great Britain has always been an uneasy federal alliance between two separate legal jurisdictions.


Quotations taken from

  • James Henrisoun, An Exhortacion to the Scottes to Conforme Themselves to the Honourable, Expedient, and Godly Union betweene the Two Realmes of Englande and Scotland (1547) see David Armitage source below
  • The complaynt of Scotlande wyth ane exortatione to the thre estaits to be vigilante in the deffens of their public weil, published anonymously in 1549 generally assumed to be the work of Robert Wedderburn although the name of James Inglis is also suggested. Extracts at scotsforindependence/history/complaynt.html
  • Norman Davies The Isles, A History (Macmillan, 1999)
  • David Armitage Making the empire British: Scotland in the Atlantic world, 1542-1707 (Past and Present, May 1997)